‘Weasle-word nation’ offers too few choicesWritten by Barbara Goodman Shovers | | firstname.lastname@example.org
A few columns back (Aug. 10), I wrote about an advertising campaign that featured “real women” pushing a new Dove “firming” lotion. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thinking about the vamping girls. According to a story in the International Herald Tribune, the adulation Dove has received for “honesty” in undressing “real” female bodies has been more than worth its weight. But the article also says the product Dove is selling is not much different from what grandma used years ago.
To its credit (and because it’s the law) Dove doesn’t explicitly state that its products smooth skin or reduce cellulite. But with phrases like “appearance of” or “look of,” the copy implies it. It’s no new news that the cosmetics industry is all about selling hope. It’s no new news that all advertising is about selling hope. It’s just that when words and images are used to obfuscate instead of clarify that I get frustrated.
I used to be part of this world. I have an MBA from what is probably this country’s top business school. I know a thing or two about “branding,” about creating and fulfilling needs. Or, to be more perverse, about selling fear and often useless solutions.
“Ohmigosh,” you might be saying. “What a curmudgeon! Spoil sport! MBAs as high on the corporate ladder as President Bush say that shopping is to patriotism as breathing is to life. Give this woman a charge card and make her spend over its limit!”
But it’s not stuff I’m averse to, it’s the less-than-forthright marketing of it. The phone company offers a zillion free minutes but doesn’t say only during off hours. The cable company advertises a terrific monthly rate — but just for the first two months of a two-year contract. The cookies have “No Carbs!” but tons of fat. The diet drink is doctor-recommended. (By which doctor? The one on the payroll?)
Companies contend they’re giving customers helpful information. But what they’re really doing is holding back. This is communications as sleight of hand. What’s hidden is likely more important than what’s revealed.
Then there’s redundancy packaged as “choice.” This concept was driven home when my daughter and I went to buy shampoo. The shelf at Target was groaning. In the Pantene line alone, there were formulations for “Classic Care,” “Classic Clean,” “Hydrating Curls,” “Sheer Volume,” “Full and Thick” and a least six others. The options were duplicated as conditioners. And a bunch were further morphed into shampoo-conditioner combos. Talk about stimulus overload.
“Which should I buy?” my daughter asked. I compared labels and found all 11 plus a house brand more or less identical, ingredient-wise. So we passed on the whole shebang.
“Take the Target generic,” I said. “It’s a couple bucks cheaper.”
Downer! Nag! The irony is that I got this way being on the push end of the marketing channel. After a while in MBA land, I realized the world really doesn’t need another flavor of iced tea or scent of room freshener.
When I lived in Germany, too much choice was not an issue. With grocery stores the size of gas stations, you bought what there was. You want soap? We carry one brand. Don’t like it? Stay dirty. Even I longed for more variety.
But where my complaint lies is not with choice or variety. It’s with the fact that there’s only the “appearance” of choice, the “look” of variety. With few new-and-improved exceptions, most stuff is “Me Too,” not “Oh My!”
Plus, we’ve become a nation of weasel-word users: “may,” “should,” “can.” The what’s not said of products (and public policy, to coda back to the MBA-in-Chief) crowds out the headlines. Messages have become subsidiary to their declaimers.